“Change” is from g.o.d’s (Groove Overdose) 2005 album Into the Sky. It combines rap with the distinct soul vocals of Kim Tae Woo. The track’s lyrics were written by Park Jin Young, the CEO of JYP Entertainment also known as The Asiansoul, while the composition and arrangement is credited to Mad Soul Child.
Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop (September 2020, University of Mississippi Press) is a scholarly book that examines the ways that Korean pop (“idols), R&B and mainstream hip-hop of the Hallyu (Korean wave) era incorporate elements of black popular music and how global fans understand that influence.
It talks about people you know. It covers K-pop as a 20-year-old music tradition with genres that have developed over time and significant musical acts. It recognizes the development of “idol” acts ranging from veterans to their successors as well as the Korean and African American music producers behind the music, including Yoo Young Jin, Teddy, Teddy Riley and Harvey Mason Jr. It explores Korean R&B singers and groups as well as mainstream Korean hip-hop artists. Musical acts covered include g.o.d., Shinhwa, 2PM, Wonder Girls, SHINee, TVXQ, Rain (Bi), Fly to the Sky, 4MEN, Brown Eyed Soul, Big Mama, Park Hyo Shin, Lyn, Zion T., Wheesung, Dynamic Duo, Epik High, Primary, Jay Park and Yoon Mirae.
What’s In It for Scholars
It critically engages K-pop through an interdisciplinary lens. Soul in Seoul draws on popular music studies, fan studies and transnational American studies to examine the intertextuality at the heart of K-pop music, an intertextuality that includes African American popular music and distinct Korean music strategies. This intertextuality sounds different through time, across genres and among artists because it draws from a variety of aspects of black popular music. At the same time, the book highlights the critical function of fans, who are responsible for its global spread and function as its music press. It places African American popular culture within a global context, thereby disrupting the homogenizing tendencies of globalization that obscure the impact of an African American popular culture with a complicated relationship to the West. The book is accessible to undergraduate and graduate students and suitable for courses in music and ethnomusicology, ethnic studies, Asian studies, African American studies, American studies, popular culture and media studies.
What’s In It for Everybody
Soul in Seoul is about the music, so it is for anyone who is curious about the ever-changing phenomenon that is K-pop. Look for the Soul in Seoul Playlist leading up to the book’s release in September 2020 on KPK: Kpop Kollective to hear what all the fuss is about.
Online platforms have been a major force propelling the spread of K-pop globally, but are shifts in how they are deployed contributing to a more insular fandom?
When you ask K-pop fans about their journey into K-pop, YouTube usually features prominently. Over the last few years, K-pop fans have been treated to content by companies and artists who recognize the platform as a significant way to get content to fans. However, Jeff Benjamin reports a new trend that sees companies shifting their focus from the easily accessed platforms like Youtube (depending on your country of residence) to more proprietary platforms that promise more direct interaction with K-pop artists and more profit for companies: “The apps will enable K-pop companies to retain all of the ad revenue generated by the content they post. YouTube’s revenue-sharing model only gives 55% to channel owners, which can get more complicated when international viewership is involved.”
While access to such proprietary platforms such as WeVerse and Lysn are free, revenue is generated from fees to access more premium content with artists. Fans could pay $30 for a global fan membership or $20 to view the individual fourth season of BTS’s Bon Voyage, while an individual membership for a subscription to SM Entertainment’s personalized message system “Dear U” costs $3.45 per month for an individual member, and a subscription for all 14 members of NCT could run about $40 (Benjamin 2020).
What are the implications for K-pop fandom, which for years was sustained by free content on platforms like YouTube? On one hand, this move could limit access for fans who choose to not pay for such services, and they may lose interest in K-pop. On the other hand, fans have been circulating artist-related material for decades, keeping interest going for K-pop long before the companies started to look to proprietary platforms for revenue.
There would be a particular dilemma for the multi-fan of groups who may end of on several different proprietary platforms. Moreover, it could contribute to the continued balkanization of K-pop fandom, with fans becoming even more territorial and defensive about their groups. Channeling fans to proprietary sites may translate to even less exposure to other K-pop groups as well as the larger K-pop industry.
Such a move could also make fandom less visible. Because of its ease of access, YouTube is not only a platform for artist content, but for fan content as well. This put fan activity on global display. If interaction between artists and fans move to more proprietary platforms, such fan activity becomes less visible. Which stricter rules on sharing, it could also have a negative impact on the visibility of fan-artist interaction, which began on very visible social media platforms in the first place.
Survey responses suggest that American female fans of K-pop girl groups simultaneously critique Korean society and music industry and recognize the impact of their position as foreign fans on their perceptions of representations of empowerment in K-pop. These are findings from the U Go Girl: The K-pop Girl Group Fan Study and are based on 129 responses from female fans who identified their country of residency as the United States.
Transcultural fandom, when fans admire something outside of their culture, often revolves around nationalism. Koichi Iwabuchi talks about “brand nationalism,” or a “nationalist strategy of disseminating culture for national interests” (90). However, brand nationalism focuses on the interests of the country creating the culture rather than how fans outside of the country make sense of it. The field of fan studies tends to focus on the way fans admire culture, but what about when they critique it? When asked about their attitudes towards concepts/images of K-pop girl groups in relation to empowerment and agency for women, some American female fans of K-pop girl groups articulate a critique of gender dynamics in Korean society, while others recognize the impact of their American identity on their perspectives of female empowerment in Korea. Both show how an American perspective can influences the discourses around K-pop.
Critique of Korea
Several respondents criticize Korean culture and society for a lack of representation of empowerment by K-pop girl groups. One respondent notes: “I think Korea has a huge issue with misogyny that is reflected in K-pop and that women are forced to be boxed in to one ‘type’ or another in order to appeal to men and to be socially acceptable to both men and women.” Another respondent says: “A lot of times they are held back due to Korea still holding sexist attitudes so I think there is more potential but it will all slowly become better.” How much do the respondents know about the history of Korean culture? Do they form such opinions based on Western media, which has been known to skew representations of foreign culture? Is “Korea’s issue with misogyny” or its “sexist attitudes” different than those within the United States?
Recognition of American Subjectivity
At the same time, other respondents recognize their perspective as American fans of a foreign popular culture. One respondent notes: “We have to remember as foreign fans, the concepts, images and sonic soundscapes that we hear/see in K-pop are coming from a unique place and culture. That means we are not always going to immediately understand it. . . . . We all have different experiences and thus different frameworks. Foreign Kpop fans need to remember this.” Another respondent notes: “This is a tricky question, because I’m a white American woman speaking on gender politics in Korea, a country I have no relation to and have never lived in. . . . At the end of the day, I’m not a defining voice on the subject, all I am is someone trying to find grey area in music and entertainment from a country that isn’t my own. I still am friends with quite a few Korean-Americans so I hear what they think on certain concepts, and that contributes a lot to my hesitancy to place my Western ideals on another country dismissively.” These fans recognize that their perceptions of Korean culture are filtered through their experiences as fans outside of the country. What kind of knowledge would a fan have to gain to make a valid critique of representations of empowerment? Do their perspectives not count because they are foreign fans? Do ideas about empowerment change as they cross national boundaries?
Such divergent responses suggest that perceptions by American fans may be influenced by American culture in general. The impact of nationalism has been explored in fan studies. Kyong Yoon’s study of K-pop fans in Vancouver included Canadians of East Asian descent, white Canadians and one Canadian of mixed race. Yoon noted: “Some fans of Asian descent engaged with K-pop in relation to their Asian Canadian subject positions, while White Canadian fans emphasized their individual and alternative cultural tastes that do not belong to mainstream culture” (185). Yoon suggests that a Canadian context informs the way these fans interact with K-pop.
The United States represents a unique context informed by a history of the interplay among gender, ethnicity and nationality. As a nation developed by a variety of immigrant groups and a major site for women’s rights, the United States also elides those very varied experiences in favor of one dominant narrative on empowerment, currently often represented as fierce, outspoken and brash. Images and concepts not in keeping with this narrative might be construed as not empowering. This suggests that a distinct and particular American cultural lens can have an impact on the way fans read empowerment in Korean girl groups.
Iwabuchi, Koichi.”Undoing Inter‐national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism’. Mechademia 5 (2010): . 87‐96.
Yoon, Kyong. “Transnational Fandom in the Making: K-pop Fans in Vancouver.” the International Communication Gazette vol 81, no. 2 (2018): 176-192. DOI: 10.1177/1748048518802964.
pH-1 (Park Jun-Won, also known as Harry Park) is a Korean-American rapper on H1GHER Music Records, which also houses GroovyRoom and G.Soul. While people want to make harsh distinctions between K-pop and K-hip-hop, I actually found out about pH-1 from the K-pop sub-Reddit. From the 2019 release Summer Episodes, this is one of those songs that you LOVE upon first hearing. It sounds like summer.
Mamamoo is a girl group well known for its vocal talent, but the members also show themselves to be musically versatile. The group performed “Destiny (우린 결국 다시 만날 운명이었지)” for its finale on the music competition show Queendom, and the track was later included on the 2019 album Reality in Black. Kpopmap notes that “It is hard to pinpoint a specific genre as the track seemed to have a mix of various tempos and rhythm, causing listeners to get surprised time to time.” Those unique elements include the prominent guitar and the staccato vocals during the repeated breakdown.
Mnet K-pop. “[ENG sub] [최종회] ♬ 우린 결국 다시 만날 운명이었지(Destiny) – 마마무 @ FINAL 경연 컴백전쟁 : 퀸덤 10화.” YouTube. 31 Oct 2019. https://youtu.be/i0bHc8k-FdM (24 Feb 2020).
K-pop is old enough for us to recognize that it has a bonafide history, and the way we divide up that history affects the way we see K-pop.
Some scholars place K-pop within a larger history of Korean popular music. In the article “Mapping K-pop Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange,” Keith Howard begins a theorization of the K-pop music industry with an overview that begins in Korea’s colonial period. Similarly, John Lie contextualizes the exploration of K-pop within the development of music stretching back to the Choson era. These moves provide some legitimacy to K-pop based on its proximity to what some may view as more substantial forms of culture found earlier in Korea’s history.
However, K-pop is a distinct mode of Korean popular music, distinct in its production, sound and global reach. Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim argue that “Despite the Western influences that have morphed Korean popular music into an expression unrecognizable from the standpoint of traditional music, K-pop has undeniably clear origins.” In addition, media have recognized that K-pop has gone through different phases throughout its almost 30-year (and counting) run. Their attempts to periodize K-pop suggests that it is worthy of a history of its own. At the same time, such attempts are also largely defined by “idol” groups, which skews our understanding of K-pop’s past when it fails to include other genres.
Nearly everyone agrees on first-generation K-pop, beginning with the debut of Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992 and ending in 2002 with the disbandment of several of the first K-pop groups. Both a staff reporter for KPopStarz and TAKE-KR list Seo Taiji, H.O.T, Turbo, Sechs Kies, g.o.d. and Fly to the Sky as part of first-generation. TAKE-KR adds Shinhwa and KPoPStarz includes BoA. At the same time, both publications overlook several genres within early K-pop, including Korean hip-hop acts like 1TYM, R&B groups like 4MEN, bands such as Jaurim and Nell and solo artists like Park Hyo Shin, Wheesung and Rain. Such lists tend to be “idol”-centric, but in fact, there is much overlap and influence among these artists under the large K-pop umbrella.
There remains a level of consensus for second-generation K-pop, which runs from 2003 to 2009. Articles from KPopStarz and TAKE-KR both list TVXQ, BigBang, SS501, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, 2NE1, BEAST, f(x), UKISS, 2AM, 2PM as part of second-generation K-pop. KPopStarz includes Epik High and several girl groups, including TARA, KARA, After School, 4Minute, Brown Eyed Girls and Secret. TAKE-KR includes MBLAQ and the bands FT. Island and CN Blue. Second-generation K-pop did produce a different variety of “idol” groups. It also continued to produce solo artists, such as Lee Hyori, Kim Tae Woo and Se7en, as well as several significant hip-hop groups, including Dynamic Duo, Supreme Team and Mighty Mouth.
There is much dissent for subsequent generations of K-pop. TAKE-KR identifies two more generations: EXP Generation (2010-2014), which includes BTS, EXO, Miss A, GOT7, Red Velvet and Mamamoo, and the XFMR Generation (2015-present), which includes Day6, Ikon, Seventeen, Twice and BlackPink. KPopStarz counts EXO, BlackPink, BTS, GOT7, Red Velvet, Ikon and Winner as part of a third generation that runs from 2011-2018. Again, the periodization does not include other genres.
Why does it matter? It matters because how we talk about K-pop shapes the perception of K-pop. As a mode of popular music, K-pop already suffers from the perception that it is trendy, faddish and disposable. Despite many predictions of its demise, not only has K-pop remained, it has developed over time. When the media talks about K-pop, it tends to focus on the popular “idol” groups of the moment, rather than putting those groups in the context of K-pop history or putting them in relation to other contemporary groups in different genres. We can only understand K-pop if we contextualize it within a comprehensive history. That history does not have to go back to the beginning of recorded music or popular music in Korea in order to recognize that K-pop has a legitimate trajectory of development.
Howard, Keith. “Mapping K-pop’s Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange.” Korea Observer 45.3 (2014): 389-414.
Lie, John. “What is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer 43.3 (2012): 339-363.
Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010).” East Asia 2013,DOI 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.
It is notoriously difficult to find in-depth information about 015B in English. What Wikipedia and some other sites seem to agree on is that the group started out with four members and later became a duo, brothers Jeong Seok-won and Jang Ho-il. However, listening to several of their albums reveals that they are keen to try just about any genre under the sun, and they do it well. Case in point: “Lost Temporarily” featuring Shin Bo-kyung (also known as Boni) from the group’s 2006 album, Lucky 7. As Jung Bae points out, the track has “no frills on the arrangement, just a slow and soulful beat, and Shin sang the chorus with skill and conviction beyond her years.”
015B debuted in 1990, merely two years before the appearance of Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992. They avoid the kind of spotlight we see “idol” groups bask in, but the ease with which they play in multiple genres foreshadows the kind of mixing of genres that will become a staple in K-pop.
Media coverage and scholarly writing about K-pop often negatively characterizes it as a manufactured mode of music. However, there are other connotations of this term that more comprehensively address the process by which K-pop is made.
It is common for stories about “idol”-based K-pop (singers and groups who sing and dance, appear on television shows and engage in promotional activity) to characterize K-pop as manufactured, which is regarded as negative, not real, and disposable. This is common in stories that seek to expose the “seedy underbelly” of K-pop. For example, Kathy Benjamin writes: “And it might not even be their choice. K-Pop bands are highly manufactured, and if your manager says you need to go under the knife to be beautiful enough to be a star, you probably do it.” Benjamin links what she sees as the manufactured nature of K-pop to appearance, rather than the music. The unqualified assertion that K-pop is manufactured is echoed by Euny Hong: “Bands are treated like consumer products from the beginning. Producers design the band they want—down to the precise look, sound, and marketing campaign—before they even audition members.” Hong extends the description of K-pop as manufactured beyond appearance to the music, but with the same result. Both Benjamin and Hong assert that K-pop is manufactured in a way that makes creativity impossible.
The same approach can be found in scholarly writing. John Lie likens K-pop to a product, produced by “a business in which financial and other business concerns consistently trump musical or artistic considerations” (357). In other words, K-pop is a commodity, and as such, does not embody the creativity associated with other modes of music.
However, these negative characterizations are not the only way to view manufacturing in relation to K-pop. Manufacturing can embody creativity. Instead of being an esoteric, solely personal experience, Gil-Sung Park views the creativity in K-pop as a collaborative effort as part of “manufactured creativity,” which “signifies opening the entire global music industry to musical talents and audiences from all corners of the world, allowing them to participate in an endless interactive communication and discourse about music” (16). Negative characterizations perceive this musical interaction as coercive or manipulative, but Park sees them as creative.
Moreover, the results of such collaboration are truly innovative musical creations. Using SM Entertainment as an example, Park observes that “the internal modification process (or localization) requires a set of creative skills (i.e. tacit knowledge). . . . Production requires creativity and processes created by geniuses, but the SM style of localization also demands a steady supply of high-quality performers, which is the most important factor in local production of K-pop” (25). Unlike the product that Lie purports it to be, K-pop is the result of creative processes on the part of global and Korean music personnel making the music as well as the K-pop artists who perform it. Vocal ability and dance talent are indispensable to K-pop: “Understanding the K-pop phenomenon requires the knowledge of K-pop’s sustainable business model that is firmly based on musical talent and creativity” (16).
While the concept of manufacturing is often applied to K-pop, there are alternative uses of the term that recognize its creativity.
Much like the current tone of the Internet, wholly negative criticism threatens to skew our perceptions of K-pop.
On any given day, one can wander out on social media and witness what has become the all-too-common negative critique of K-pop. A recent Twitter thread began by Yim Hyun-su pointed out how media tends to write stories disproportionately on “the dark side of K-pop” to the exclusion of other types of stories. This trend is also at play in academic scholarship. In an article for The Point Magazine, Lisa Riddick observed a level of “meanness” associated with the current culture of scholarly critique: “Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation” (“When Nothing is Cool“).
K-pop is particularly susceptible to negative criticism because it belongs to two fields often negatively criticized: popular culture and fan studies. Popular culture falls on the low end of the culture hierarchy. Lawrence W. Levine locates the origins of the hierarchy in the United States at turn of the 20th century, with highbrow used “to describe intellectual or aesthetic superiority” and “lowbrow”used “to mean someone or something neither ‘highly intellectual’ or ‘aesthetically refined” (Highbrow Lowbrow, 221-2). K-pop is mass-produced and appeals to a wide audience, so writers assume that it could not have any aesthetic value.
Similarly, fans have long been negatively characterized. Matt Hills notes that “stereotypes of mass cultural consumption still hold that fans have an appetite for what seems to be trivia. . . . Fans are undiscriminating followers of mass culture. This locates fandom as a kind of tool of the media industry” (Understanding Fandom, 40). This line of thought assumes that fans have no taste and inherently follow unimportant things. This resonates with K-pop fandom, with its majority-female fan base, for female fans have been negatively characterized especially in relation to pop culture. Diane Railton observes:
A constant image of fans of this type of music is of a girl or young woman, screaming, out of control, totally absorbed in the bodily experience. And the image that is reproduced time and time gain is not usually of one girl but of a heaving, screaming ‘mass’ of femininity. ‘Pop’ music of this type is about losing control; surrendering the rational mind to the body and the emotions. it is here that we can get some clue as to the (horrified) fascination in which such music is held by the ‘serious’ music press. (328).
Such negative appraisals give the air of serious engagement, but the repetition of the same negative appraisals actually reflect a lack of true engagement with K-pop. It comes off as lazy and suggests that writers cannot be bothered to actually delve into K-pop because they feel it is superficial. This gets worse when we look at coverage by English-language media, especially those located in the West and the United States. When these entities write the same negative stories about K-pop, it comes off as cultural chauvinism. Moreover, individuals parrot the same superficial observations, solidifying them as the “true” characterization of K-pop. Treating K-pop as a legitimate phenomenon would go a long way to improving media coverage of K-pop.
Hills, Matt. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.